I have written about switching from Family Tree Maker to RootsMagic. I made the switch without too much trouble, but am now discovering the after-effects. The problem, though, isn’t with the switch per se but with a combination of the citations in Family Tree Maker and with my own earlier mistakes. I’m discovering all this while working on one of my brick walls, Barber Nichols of RI/Canada/NY. I’ve been wanting to follow the advice of genealogist Dr. Thomas Jones and write a report on what I know so far. The idea is that the writing process brings out new research paths as one thinks things through. When writing the report I want to use proper citations. The problem is that most of my citations are not in good Evidence Explained form. This partly due to how FTM creates citations for things it downloads, and of course partly my own ignorance.
I started with FTM back in the 90s when I knew much less about formal genealogy. I connected with Ancestry.com and started having FTM pull down whatever relevant records it could. It’s great clicking a few buttons and getting a whole census records added to your tree, but there are at least four problems with this approach:
- The data downloaded is produced by transcribers. One does not know if the transcription is correct unless you compare it against the original.
- Ancestry does not transcribe every field, so if you just rely on the automatic download you can miss information.
- The census citations, and probably many others, are in a strange format. While the citations are not horrible they are not real great, either, lacking things like dwelling and family numbers.
- If you don’t examine the documents yourself, you can miss family and neighbors that might be useful in tracking down an ancestor.
Unfortunately I have a lot of records I pulled down straight from Ancestry. While cleaning up Barber’s citations I went back to each individual download record and transcribed it from scratch and found I had earlier missed a lot of things.
Another problem, and one more of my own, is that the citation quality varied on records that I did enter myself. At some point FTM did add a rough form of Evidence Explained templates, and I tried to fill them out, but not having the book at that time I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had some of those to clean up as well.
A final issue is that in the past I sometimes relied on other people’s transcriptions for records I was entering. This included transcriptions from the web as well as the OCR version of passages from Google books. As I reviewed these more carefully I found a number of mistakes, which of course shouldn’t be a surprise. I kept the copied transcriptions but went through them word by word and fixed any mistakes.
So, what are my conclusions for new genealogists? For maximum efficiency from the start it would be great if one could transcribe everything themselves and create proper citations on their own, or at least use citation templates intelligently. The problem is that this will kill the hobby for most new enthusiasts. It’s the thrill of making new connections to ancestors that gets one interested, not doing documentation. The problem there, of course, is that we get the kind of junk trees that we see on the web along with a lot of rework later on if one gets more serious.
I think RootsMagic has a fair balance on this. The stricter genealogists can always create their citations from scratch in free form. For those who want some help, though, RootsMagic has a decent template system, much more detailed than Family Tree Maker’s. To help newer genealogists, though, it would be nice having templates for more common types of records, such as from from Ancestry and FamilySearch. I know that the risk is that people would get too locked into online records from the two giants, but it would help people get better citations early on. I’ve started to make some of my own templates from the sources I use the most.
An alternative is just to relax and let new genealogists have fun with whatever tools and sources they use while teaching good practice in whatever ways are possible.
It would be a big help, though, if online sources gave better formats for their citations. This isn’t just an issue with Ancestry. The citation examples at FamilySearch are also in a sort of minimal format that actually provides less information than Ancestry does, at least for the census records I’m looking at.
And yes, I know that there are people who find the whole Evidence Explained approach to citations way over-complicated. I’ll write more on that in a future posting. And I’ll be thinking more about the best ways to efficiently and correctly track your genealogical findings.